Wednesday / May 29

Never Let a Good Crisis Go to Waste: Social Media and Literacy Instruction

Two recent reports sounded alarms about the health and educational well-being of our nation’s adolescents.  In late May, in a report entitled Social Media and Youth Mental Health, the Surgeon General notes that social media use by youth is “nearly universal” and argues that while the current social media may have some benefits for some adolescents, “there are ample indicators that social media can also have a profound risk of harm to the mental health and well-being of children and adolescents.”  About a month later The National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) reported the results of the NAEP long-term trend (LTT) reading and mathematics assessments given to 13-year-old students, finding that reading scores for age 13 students at all five selected percentile levels declined compared to 2020. In characterizing these results, the New York Times quotes Peggy Carr, commissioner of the National Center for Education Statistics, as saying, “The bottom line — these results show that there are troubling gaps in the basic skills of these students. This is a huge-scale challenge that faces the nation.”

Twin challenges, it would seem.  But maybe not.  We would argue that teachers, especially teachers of the English Language Arts, will be well-served by seeing these two challenges as an opportunity to revitalize literacy study, so that all students can see the humanities as a vibrant area of inquiry. We would argue that such a revitalization could have two dimensions: first, making social media the object of study in its own right and second, taking the opportunity to ask students to build bridges between what they’ve learned in conventional literacy study and what they do in their ubiquitous encounters with social and other forms of digital media.

Let’s take each of those dimensions in turn.  Making social and other digital media the object of study could have several foci.  One would be to understand how media are designed to manipulate our cognitive biases. Tristan Harris, formerly a design ethicist at Google and now the leader of the Center for Humane Technology, expresses it this way, “News feeds on Facebook or Twitter operate on a business model of commodifying the attention of billions of people per day . . . They have led to narrower and crazier views of the world (quoted in Applebaum & Pomerantsev, 2021, p. 44).”  Understanding both these design features and the cognitive biases they prey upon, especially availability, confirmation, and overdramatization biases will help students read with more awareness and may help students resist manipulation. So too might studying and experimenting with their own social media use.  The Surgeon General reports (see also Johnathan Haidts’s analysis) on experiments that suggest that reducing social media use results in decreased depression.  Students could study themselves and use their experience to critically evaluate those studies.  They could also engage the topic directly by writing an argument that did a cost/benefit analysis of the impact of various forms of social media:  Instagram, TikTok, and the like.

Building bridges between what students learn in studying literary reading and academic writing and what they do when they engage with social media, the second dimension, has the potential to enrich both domains.  Close reading, for example, is often experienced by students as bloodless analysis that students engage with, in Rosenblatt’s (1967) words, with “half a mind and spirit.”  Teaching close reading through digital media allows students to use the feelings engendered in their everyday reading practices as a resource as they seek to understand how and consider why content creators seek to create the effects they are experiencing.  Teaching point of view is sometimes an empty exercise in labeling and definitions.

Understanding point of view in social and other forms of digital media makes the stakes of the game clear, especially because the media landscape would seem to require the analysis of texts with contradictory arguments.

Teaching literary theory may seem arcane to some, but applying literary theories to the study of digital media shows just how powerful these theories are in providing lenses for understanding the ideologies that inform the creation and interpretation of these texts.

In advocating for building bridges, we are not suggesting that applying strategies one learned with conventional linear texts to social media and other digital texts is unproblematic. In Fighting Fake News: Teaching Students to Identify and Interrogate Information Pollution, we argue that while linear texts and digital texts resemble each other they are different in fundamental ways.  Those differences mean that we must build carefully structured sequences of instruction lest our bridges become a bridge too far.  Those differences mean that we need to support students in understanding and critically reading digital texts so that they recognize how those texts attempt to manipulate us in knowing, thinking and doing things for purposes that are not our own.

Winston Churchill famously said, “Never let a good crisis go to waste.”  We have twin crises that we need to capitalize on.  Revising curricula so that social media and other digital texts are both an object of study and the vehicle to establish the utility of the interpretive skills and strategies we are currently helping students develop is a way to do just that.

Written by

Jeffrey D. Wilhelm, a classroom teacher for 15 years, Jeffrey D. Wilhelm is currently Professor of English Education at Boise State University. He works in local schools as part of a Virtual Professional Development Site Network sponsored by the Boise State Writing Project, and regularly teaches middle and high school students. Jeff is the founding director of the Maine Writing Project and the Boise State Writing Project.

Michael W. Smith, a professor in Temple University’s College of Education, joined the ranks of college teachers after eleven years of teaching high school English. His research focuses on understanding both how adolescents and adults engage with texts outside school and how teachers can use those understandings to devise more motivating and effective instruction inside schools.

Hugh Kesson trained as a high school teacher in London and has since worked in a variety of educational roles and settings in the UK, US, and Australia. He earned his PhD at Temple University’s College of Education where his doctoral work investigated the influences of digital technologies on reading and reading instruction. Hugh’s writing has appeared in English Teaching: Practice & Critique.

Deborah Appleman is Professor of Educational Studies and Director of the Summer Writing Program at Carleton College in Northfield, Minnesota. Her primary interests include adolescent response to literature, multicultural literature, and the teaching of literary theory to high school students. A high school English teacher for nine years, Deborah works weekly in urban and suburban high schools.


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